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Penn Law School opened its doors to 551 students for in-person learning through Nov. 25.

Credit: Max Mester

As Penn prepares to welcome all undergraduate students back to campus for a hybrid spring semester in the midst of record-high COVID-19 case counts, University health officials are pointing to Penn Law School's containment of COVID-19 during its hybrid fall semester as an exemplar of how to reopen campus safely. 

Penn Law School saw no evidence of COVID-19 spread amongst law students during the hybrid semester, Penn Law spokesperson Meredith Rovine wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. Although the University decided last minute no longer to bring undergraduate students back to campus in the fall, Penn Law opened its doors to approximately 550 students of its estimated 751-person class for in-person learning through Nov. 25, when classes ended for the semester.

"These 'success stories' are exactly why we feel it is safe to open in the spring," Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter said. "We have tested systems, we know what works, and we have fixed what doesn't work. Opening in the spring does not mean we will not continue to see cases, it just means we are confident we can identify and isolate them early and mitigate spread throughout campus." 

Penn Law Associate Dean for Curricular Affairs Eleanor Barrett wrote in an email to the DP that the school's success was in large part due to faculty's efforts to adapt their courses to the new hybrid format and students' compliance to social distancing guidelines.

"We were able to maintain in-person instruction successfully through the semester because our community pulled together and was diligent in applying and complying with strict masking, social distancing, and testing protocols," she wrote.

Students, faculty, and staff praised the Penn Law administration for its execution of socially distanced in-person classes and expressed a desire for similar results in the spring.

For first-year Penn Law student Audrey Adams, taking in-person classes was a way to gain a sense of normalcy during the pandemic and build community with other first-year law students.

"I thought I'd pay more attention, learn more, and meet and interact with more people," she said. "It seemed like Penn had a reasonable series of ideas about how this was going to work."

Adams, who said she was initially nervous to attend in-person classes due to concerns of a potential COVID-19 spread, deemed the semester "pretty successful" given the circumstances, noting that she is only aware of one student who contracted COVID-19. The administration notified students who were potentially exposed to the positive case and instructed them to self-isolate depending on the individual level of exposure, she said.

First-year Penn Law student Hannah Kark echoed Adams' sentiments, adding that she did not expect such a positive outcome.

"I remember I had a conversation with someone and I asked, 'how long do you think we're going to be in person for?' And they said early October. But it worked," she said. "[Penn Law administration] did a phenomenal job, and I was consistently impressed." 

None of the classes in which third-year Penn Law student Sanjay Jolly was enrolled had an in-person option, but as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Law and Social Change, he still had access to the Law School building located at 3501 Sansom Street.

Jolly, who described himself as someone who is usually "very critical of the school," praised the administration's rigorous protocols, adding that he thought the school handled the semester well. 

In order for students to enter the Law School building, they must get weekly COVID-19 tests, have a daily green PennOpen Pass, and wear masks, Rovine wrote. In-person class sizes were limited to 25 people per room, including lecture halls that normally seat more than 100 students. Other social distancing measures included shifting office hours online or outdoors and prohibiting any eating in buildings.

Such adjustments proved challenging, but not impossible, according to Barrett. 

"Offering in-person classes under these circumstances raised a lot of logistical and technical challenges and required us to rethink many of our regular systems and procedures, from how classes are scheduled and classrooms are assigned, to when students can attend classes given the 25-person limitation, to how the technology in our rooms works," she wrote.

Penn Law professor David Hoffman said the new way of teaching in person had its difficulties, but he ultimately felt the opportunity to teach in person was worth it. 

"It's hard to teach wearing a mask for two hours standing up, and having [the students] all wear masks in a big, pretty distant room," he said. "It doesn't feel nearly as immersive or as exciting as the ordinary classroom experience, but I think there are still moments of real engagement."

Some students pointed to some advantages of fully remote learning, which all classes adopted after Thanksgiving break, citing easier seminar-style discussions without the need to mask up.

Second-year Penn Law student Brinna Ludwig enrolled in a seven-person seminar with a weekly in-person meeting. But a couple of weeks into the semester, the professor was potentially exposed to a positive COVID-19 case, forcing the class to shift completely online.

Ludwig said students in the class soon realized that conducting the class on Zoom was in fact more beneficial for class discussions.

"When there are fewer than ten people in the class, it's nicer to use Zoom when you can see everybody's faces and not everybody's in a mask," she said.

Adams added that in order to keep class sizes small, only half the class can attend an in-person session, while the other half must Zoom into the class.

"I definitely preferred being able to be there in person, and I wish I could speak with my professors and colleagues in person about finals, but there's also the trade off of it's kind of nice that [when on Zoom,] we're all finally in the same spot at the same time when we are in class," Adams said.

Penn Law professors, such as Hoffman and Professor of Law and Psychology Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, were especially excited by the opportunity to teach in person after finding it difficult to engage with students over Zoom last spring.

"The students I've talked to really felt like this was the closest to normal that they could have in this moment, and they felt great about it, and I felt great about the opportunity to give them that," Hoffman said.

Wilkinson-Ryan, who did not expect the school to continue in-person classes through the end of the semester due to an increase in cases, called the semester "wildly successful."

"The Law School is a relatively small school, and there was just a ton of extremely granular detail from the dean and the dean of students," she said, adding that she was equally impressed with students' compliance to social distancing guidelines.

Halbritter similarly attributed the law school's success to students' and faculty's commitment to wearing masks, washing their hands, and practicing social distancing, to which Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé agreed.

"Penn Law has every right to be proud of this success," Dubé said. "It's important that amidst our 'doom scrolling' across news channels every day that we hear success stories like this that reinforce the fact that basic public health guidelines work."